ntil I perpetrated my first translation, I had never considered the possibility of becoming a translator. In fact, I was not even aware that there was such a thing as a professional translator. Sure, on some unconscious level I knew there were people translating books and subtitling motion pictures, but they were probably English teachers or journalists moonlighting to make a few extra bucks.
Having majored in economics and with a 25-year successful career in banking on my résumé, I was not even confident of my English skills. I was used to working with memos and professional reports in English and could read Stephen King's and Robert Ludlum's bestsellers, which I avidly bought as soon as they appeared in the pocketbook section of Livraria Siciliano, but for more serious reading or for text books I would wait for a translation or pick up a Spanish edition. And my spoken English sounded (and still sounds) like a Native American in a John Wayne's movie.
But then, on a nice winter day of 1994, the Brazilian government launched a new economic plan. Behind the usual pyrotechnics there were sound orthodox policies that finally tamed inflation and left the banking system in an extremely difficult situation: the banks were structured to profit from a surreal inflation (1,000,000,000,000,000% in 30 years) and were not prepared for a more 'normal' environment. Almost half of Brazilian banks failed or were absorbed by stronger (or less fragile) banks--which means that one-half of the jobs in the banking system disappeared--mine included.
I will not bore you with details of my life in the following three years, which included some incursions as a training instructor, owning a coffee shop, and mailing an untold amount of résumés to every conceivable company in the country. One day I was perusing the classified ads in Estadão (O Estado de São Paulo, the most traditional newspaper in my home state), when the tiny print of a small ad caught my attention: a translation company was seeking the help of a retired banking executive. They had been awarded a contract to translate a bunch of research reports from a leading American bank and were looking for someone to help them, more in the role of a technical reviewer. I scheduled an interview and the owner showed me some samples of the reports they were supposed to start translating in a few days. And I realized I was not only familiar with that kind of material: I had written tons of them myself! To make a long story short, I left their office with a couple of translation assignments in my suitcase and with the knowledge that there was a new market to tap.
In a few months I was totally hooked. After all, I was being paid to translate the kind of things I would be reading anyway! Shortly after that, I discovered ProZ and the international market. In 2000 I took ABRATES's (the Brazilian Translators Association's) accreditation exam. In 2001, using a mileage ticket near expiration (a leftover from my golden days as an upper mid-level banking executive), I flew to Los Angeles, carrying a bag with 50 pounds of dictionaries, to take ATA's certification exam. And the rest is history...
What would I say to someone wanting to become a translator?
- First of all, you will need perfect writing skills in your target language. That is how you will avoid the artificial flavor you find in less than perfect translations.
- I dare say that knowledge of the subjects you want to translate is as important as the command of your source and target languages: if you do not understand what the author said in the source text, you will be just a human translation machine, transposing words from one language to another. And worse, you will not be able to see whether or not your translation makes sense.
- Build relationships with your colleagues and help them with their terminology issues. They are your best marketing tools. They are the ones who will invite you to partner with them in huge projects. They are the ones who will refer you to clients and will vouch for your professional proficiency. So, you need to make them know you, your skills, and your reliability. And do not forget that, sooner or later, YOU will need to ask for THEIR help too!
- Join all your local professional associations; if you intend to service international clients, join professional associations in the country your prospects are located. This is the best way to show your prospective clients that you are committed to your profession.
- Get all certifications you can, and not only from your local associations or government agencies. Think about it: if a client were able to evaluate the work of a translator, he/she would probably not need a translator at all! An ATA Certification, for example, will not make you a better translator, but will show your clients (many of whom are located thousands of miles from you) that you are among the best in your field.
- Finally, remember: you are a business. Maybe a very small one, but a business nonetheless. You will need some kind of accounting, an accounts receivable system, credit controls, and all the bureaucratic stuff businesses are made of.
Once you have made the commitment to a career, make the investment in money, time, and energy necessary for success, and continue to improve yourself and your business to stay on the top of your profession.